Suppose I Wrote a Book on Integralism: What Should I Cover?

As I finish copyediting and page proofing for my next book, Trust in a Polarized Age, I’ve been thinking about my next big book project. I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring illiberal political perfectionism, the view that the ultimate duty of the state is to promote the good and the good life for citizens, but where the good life is described not as a life lived autonomously, but as one that participates in some kind of communal and/or religious value, like a relationship with God. Illiberal perfectionism includes all theocratic states, but also anti-liberal ideological states, like China.

The prime new form of illiberal perfectionism that people are talking about is Catholic Integralism, which I have blogged about quite a bit here. The view, in short, is a Catholic illiberal perfectionism, where the state, subordinated in some respects to the Catholic Church, organizes law and policy to help man attain eternal salvation. I’m no integralist, but I’m fascinated by it for reasons I’ve outlined, and I’ve found that many other non-integralists are as well. So I’ve put together a book proposal on integralism, and I’m wondering what sorts of subjects and arguments I should cover.

Right now the goal of the book is to critique integralism with a just the arguments approach. I’m not going to insult integralism or degrade it in any way. And I will do best to render their arguments as powerfully as I can. I also want to avoid focusing entirely on the practicality of integralism in, say, the United States. What I’m interested in is whether integralism is a political ideal and whether we ought to pursue that ideal when we can.

I also won’t focus on whether Catholicism is true, or whether Catholicism dogmatically required integralism (it doesn’t require integralism, but it does require some practices that are more consistent with integralist political theory than alternatives). I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian, of a fairly theologically orthodox sort, so I don’t disagree with Catholics about all that much about the good life.

Given these restrictions, what I want to know is the following: is an integralist political regime the proper political ideal if Catholic Christianity, or something near enough, is true? In brief, must the state be Catholic?

My answer is that integralism is not the proper political ideal. I have a number of reasons for thinking so. But here is a brief summary of the arguments I find persuasive. Let me know if you find them of interest.

  1. Baptism and Religious Coercion: integralism faces an unresolvable tension between its commitment to protecting extensive religious freedom for the baptized and restricting the religious freedom of the baptized. They need to show that baptism generates an enforceable duty of fair play, but it probably can’t be done.
  2. Diversity and Instability: even if we could reach integralism, it is a feature of human nature to deeply disagree about ultimate matters, and an integralist regime will have to suppress that diversity in ways that either contravene natural law or undermine the stability of the regime.
  3. The Common Good: much of the drive towards integralism is that it is the best way to realize the true common good. I argue that the common good includes respect for the dignity of the person as a proper part, implying the existence of natural rights associated with that dignity. For this reason, the common good might have internal deontic principles incompatible with integralist coercion, so integralists can’t rely so heavily on the common good as the normative foundation of their view.
  4. Reciprocity: integralism states that what justifies political power is the state promoting the correct conception of the good. I argue that in doing so, integralism ignores the natural law of reciprocity, which requires that justifications for political power by reciprocal, ones that all can recognize as valid. The problem, in short, is that integralism violates the Golden Rule: integralists would not like to have other sectarian values imposed upon them, and so should not insist that others abide by theirs.
  5. Reaching Integralism: integralist regimes have existed in the past, and for long periods of time. So we know how integralism would look to some degree, and we can anticipate the kids of policies that would be required in order to get there. Or do we? Perhaps as integralists succeed in closing American society, their ability to figure out how to institutionalize integralism would degrade because closing down open societies can often reduce our knowledge about how to improve our social institutions. This isn’t a mere pragmatic point; it is a barrier faced by any attempt to realize integralism.

So, I know those are pretty vague, but do they sound of interest to people?


  • Punyesh Kumar Posted July 10, 2020 12:11 pm

    Sounds very interesting. I’m not sure this is exactly within your topic but would you be willing to consider Edward Feser’s critique of liberalism. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his work but he’s a Catholic ex-libertarian philosopher who has made similar sorts of arguments you seem to mention. He has also explicitly stated that Liberalism is a heresy.
    Here’s an article that is a good summary of his views.

    It would be interesting to hear your response to him since he’s quite a competent philosopher who’s well versed in liberal thought but ultimately came to reject it in great part.

  • Andrew Borror Posted July 16, 2020 9:56 pm

    Very interesting! So, I am not a political theorist, nor anything close to one. I simply enjoy thinking about these things in my free time. But I’ve been wrestling with liberalism for a while. Please hear me out as someone legitimately trying to understand 🙂

    I still don’t see how liberalism itself isn’t a form of ‘integralism’ (in which the dominant view is a form of scientific materialism, with a sharp public/private dualism, a fact/value distinction, etc.). It seems to me that as long as there are human intentions and meanings at play, there will always be a vision of the human person and of the good life that is at play (even if that vision entails fundamentally self-interested individuals who are in competition with one another and agree to disagree).

    I think my qualm boils down to the question: can there be a neutral state? How can there be a state at all–how can we decide what goals to pursue–without defining the good, happiness, freedom, etc.? Is there a religiously neutral definition of religious neutrality (Cf. William Cavanaugh)? The secular as a neutral space, it seems to me, is far too thin. By claiming to bracket off formal and final causes, liberalism paves the way for considerable ontological smuggling, and arguably, its alleged neutrality has created considerable problems: namely, a totalitarian regime where aliberal perspectives are not welcome.

    I am curious how you would respond to Milbank & Pabst’s critiques of liberalism in The Politics of Virtue (as well as Milbank’s critique of secular reason in Theology & Social Theory and Alasdair MacIntyre’s claims in After Virtue).

    Thank you for your time and for your work!

    • Kevin Posted July 17, 2020 11:34 am

      Lots to say here! I think the form of public reason liberalism I adopt you don’t need to say a huge amount about philosophical anthropology to justify liberalism, and you can get a neutral state, but not maximally neutral. Nonetheless, you try for it because neutrality is a kind of fairness, and fairness is part of justice.

      I’ve written on these issues at length in my books, Liberal Politics and Public Faith, and Must Politics Be War?, in case you’re interested in looking into my view!

      • Andrew Borror Posted July 18, 2020 3:34 pm

        Thanks for your reply, I’ll have to check out your work.

        Also, I discussed this with one of your former students yesterday- Sam!!

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